1. Realize you’re in a rut. Sounds obvious but a lot of players don’t actually realize they’re in a rut. Check to see if you have any of the following symptoms:
- You play a LOT in only 2 keys
- You pick up the guitar, play what you know and put it down again.
- You find yourself endlessly drawn to Am pentatonic
- You can’t seem to make any progress
- You’ve reached a plateau and don’t know what to do next
- You’re reading this
2. Stop running scales.
3. Discover an amazing unknown guitarist.
What you listen to affects your playing more than you realize. Think back to the players that first inspired you to pick up a guitar and how much they’ve influenced your style. An new influence can be a great turning point and a fantastic source of inspiration. Here are a few of the players who’ve provided me with some much needed inspiration at critical points:
4. Explore the flat keys. As guitarists, especially of the rock and blues persuasion, we tend to spend a lot of time playing in the keys of C, G, A, E and D. Try F, Bb and Eb to start with as different keys have different emotions and if you’re not exploring them all, you’re missing out.
5. Try P4 Tuning (Perfect 4ths Tuning) I’m not suggesting you adopt a whole new tuning and throw standard out the window but the perspective this tuning gives you is worth its weight in gold. 4ths tuning is a great option for a rut-breaking exercise because frees you up mentally to concentrate on making music or reaching new levels of complexity, the bonus being that you can apply these concepts to standard tuning and gain a whole new perspective.
Tune your top B and E strings up to C and F respectively or if you’re not keen on the added string tension, tune the E, A, D and G strings down a semitone. Now you have a perfectly symmetrical set up, the beauty of which is that any scale, chord or arpeggio will retain its shape regardless of the string set; it cuts out the B string warp zone freeing up much needed head space to concentrate on the music. I personally love this tuning and when combined with the 2 Position System it becomes a very powerful tool indeed. You can find a ton of great P4 resources here.
6. Go minimalist. I see a lot of players throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their solos and parts. Go to the other extreme and see how much mileage you can get out of a handful of notes, an arpeggio or a few chords. Remember: less is more (fans).
7. Get some sax. Listen to or transcribe a few sax solos. Why? Your average sax player is light years ahead of your average guitarist in terms of improvisation, mainly because they know the shit out of chords and most often need to play melodically over changes.
8. Altered tunings with a twist. Tune your axe to your favorite altered tuning (I love DADGAD for this), preferably one where standard tuning chord shapes/scales can’t be easily replicated. Here’s the twist: play only using your ears, your task being to come up with a piece of music and get those creative juices flowing. One of the major causes of getting into a rut is losing touch with your creativity.
9. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. I see a lot of guitarists worried about stuff they don’t yet know. This is a complete waste of energy which would be better focused on refining what you already know to make way for some new stuff. Similarly, don’t waste time and energy on techniques that you think you should know but don’t actually enjoy trying to pull off. The usual suspects include sweep picking, tapping, cheesy whammy bar stuff, too much legato etc.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these techniques as long as they can be naturally incorporated into your playing so there’s no ‘uh oh… here comes the trick’ spinal tap type antics.
10. Get out of your comfort zone. It’s disconcerting at first but anything that forces you out of your comfort zone is good. This could be: playing with more advanced musicians, attempting different styles, different instruments, fingers instead of pick etc. Plus, the more you practice outside your comfort zone, the better you’ll be able to handle new playing situations.